By Olusegun Adeniyi
Memoirs can help negotiate the complex and sometimes tricky relationship between individuals and their communities. Students of politics also find these recollections useful for interpreting events in their country. The memoir of Dr Ifeanyichukwu Oluwasegun Opeyemi Ogunbiyi being presented today in Lagos to mark his 75th birthday not only speaks eloquently to the Nigeria that was and could have been but serves as a timely reminder of the work of nation-building that lies ahead. It contains several fragments of our history that I leave readers to enjoy and discover themselves. As Emeritus Professor, Femi Osofisan, wrote in one of the blurbs, the book is “not only a scintillating account of Ogunbiyi’s personal life, but also in fact an unusually lucid and riveting profile of the adventure of an entire generation.”
This of course is not a political book. But memoirs of citizens like Ogunbiyi are important, especially in societies like ours where many leaders would rather buy champagne for a few than provide drinking water for all, to borrow from the wisdom of Thomas Sankara. And there could not have been a better time for memoirs like this than now. Countless Nigerians (including those who cannot properly manage their families) are declaring their intention to manage our affairs as president, governors and lawmakers. Incidentally, Vice President Yemi Osinbajo, who on Monday declared his bid for the number one job in the country, will deliver the keynote speech at a ceremony chaired by Aremo Olusegun Osoba with Chief Emeka Anyaoku as Guest of Honour.
Ogunbiyi’s memoir take its title (The Road Never Forgets) from a poem written for him as a birthday gift by the inimitable emeritus professor of Literature, Niyi Osundare. But as Biodun Jeyifo, another emeritus professor wrote in the foreword, it is difficult to put down the 474-page book once one begins to read. This was affirmed by three other eminent scholars, Osofisan, G.G. Darah and Chidi Amuta in their blurbs: ‘The Road Never Forgets’ is easily one of the most insightful memoirs written by any Nigerian. Meanwhile, those who marvel at how Ogunbiyi speaks Yoruba, Hausa and Igbo so fluently have their answer. Born and raised in Sabon Gari, Kano to a Yoruba father and Igbo mother, the boy registered in primary school in 1953 as Ifeanyi Ogunbiyi is now a man of the world in the truest sense!
Ordinarily, memoirs are powerful because they originate from life stories, offering readers rare glimpses into experiences that shaped identities and cultures. That can easily be deciphered from ‘The Road Never Forgets’. For instance, the first chapter, ‘Sabon Gari, Kano’ tells a compelling story of how the settlement evolved and the interconnections with Ogunbiyi’s own birth and upbringing. “When Papa (Ogunbiyi’s father) arrived in Kano in 1939 as a part of that second wave of immigrants, he naturally moved to Sabon Gari. He rented an apartment at 29 Aitken Road, where he stayed throughout his 45-years sojourn in Kano. At that time, 29 Aitken Road belonged to Mrs Janet Adetola Mabogunje, mother of Professor Akin Mabogunje, the renowned geographer and academic. Since Professor Mabogunje was born in Kano in 1931 and had his primary school education there, the Mabogunjes probably were the first wave of Yoruba immigrant settlers in Kano.”
The power of recall, the variety of rich anecdotes and the simplicity of language make Ogunbiyi’s memoir so enjoyable that one cannot but keep turning the pages. There are just too many interesting stories to savour. Take his friendship with the late Dele Giwa which started while both were in the United States. Ogunbiyi recalls the last days of the founding NEWSWATCH editor-in-chief from what he considered an unforgettable subtext to his father’s funeral in 1986. “Funerals in those days, friends and relatives gladly substituted as pallbearers in the absence of present-day paid pallbearers. In the process of lifting the casket, my close friend, Dele Giwa hurt his lower back and ended up with slipped disc. He never fully recovered from that mishap until he met his own tragic death barely two months after Papa’s funeral. Indeed, after my father’s passing, the Saturday night before his death, I visited with Dele and asked after his back. He firmly stood up in the same study where the bomb would go off the following day to prove to me that his slipped disc had fallen back in place. I never saw Dele again after that late Saturday encounter.”
For people like me, ever curious about secret fraternities and their idiosyncrasies, Ogunbiyi’s memoirs provide considerable insight. As a curious 12-year-old boy who had heard tales about the ‘Lodge’ to which his father belonged, Ogunbiyi and two fellow teenagers embarked on an adventurous escapade of climbing a tree inside a cemetery to observe the rituals at a particular burial. Readers will have to take Ogunbiyi’s interesting account of mischief mixed with innocence from the book. But here is what happened decades later: “…the story of that funeral resurfaced many years after Papa had passed away when I stumbled on a cache of old photographs containing primarily pictures of his Masonic activities. I was struck by a series of funeral pictures in the pack, photos of a street procession of masons in their Masonic attires, and another shot in which the deceased member whose funeral was being held was lying in state, surrounded by Papa and other masons. The following words were written in Papa’s flabby cursive on the back of one of the photographs: ‘RIP Bro P.H. Doyle: 1959’. It turned out that—and this is an amazing coincidence of all—the funeral ceremony that I spied upon as a child, in the expectation that the corpse would be ‘woken up’ in the cemetery by the Lodge brothers of the deceased was that of Mr Patrick Harry Doyle, the father of my friend, Patrick Doyle Jnr, who would have been in my class at Kings College, Lagos in 1966 if he had stayed back for Higher School!”
From the North to the East and West, Ogunbiyi made friends easily and established associations with a diversity of people. For instance, he first met Prof Wole Soyinka (a lecturer) at Ibadan. In 1986 when Soyinka won the Nobel Prize in Literature, he was invited to attend. But as is often the case, the federal military government had turned the ceremony into a Nigerian carnival in Stockholm with more Nigerian VIPs than the organisers could accommodate. Just when a semblance of order had been restored with additional slots given to accommodate a few Nigerian big men, the late Bashorun MKO Abiola jetted in unannounced. Ogunbiyi had to surrender his slot.
Perhaps the most riveting account is Ogunbiyi’s introduction to the media world from academia. As acting head of department of dramatic arts at Ife in 1982, Ogunbiyi was preparing to go on a year sabbatical leave in the United States when the late Dr Stanley Macebuh invited him to spend the year working for a newspaper he had just birthed for a young Mr Alex Ibru. Ogunbiyi’s account of The Guardian, (where I began my own journalism career two months after my NYSC in Wushishi, Niger State in December 1990) is very compelling. But perhaps more fascinating is the account of how Ogunbiyi became the Managing Director of Daily Times as well as the role played by Dr Tunji Olagunju and the late Air Marshall Ibrahim Alfa. Yet, the entire adventure started for him at the palace of the then Ooni of Ife, the late Oba Okunade Sijuade. Ogunbiyi had gone to inform the monarch of his imminent departure for a one-year sabbatical leave in Lagos. This was what transpired:
“As we sipped our wine from gold-plated wine goblets, Kabiyesi, looking as if in studious contemplation, flagged me closer to his massive throne-like leather seat. There was a glint in his eyes as he peered at me, and said, with a seeming finality of tone that conjured the authority he arrogated to himself as the Arole Oodua: ‘My son, good luck on your trip to Lagos. But we know you’re not going to come back here again to teach.’
“I quietly interjected and reminded him that I was merely taking a one-year sabbatical leave, which would end in June 1984. ‘Oh yes, I know,’ he uttered back. ‘But, my son, Ife will be too small for you by the time you’re ready to come back.’
“‘But Baba, I…’ Before I could finish, Kabiyesi cut me off again. ‘Yes, I know. I heard you. But what we have been told inside the temple is different. We have been told that you’re not coming back here to teach. You see, even this Guardian job is not your destination. You’ll be going to a much bigger place after the Guardian. That’s what we’ve been told. When and how, I don’t know. But you’ll see, and then, you’ll remember what I am saying to you now.’
“Completely thrown off guard by these seemingly unusual ‘blessings’ and ‘best wishes’ from the Ooni, Sade (Mrs Ogunbiyi) and I were dumbstruck. We thanked him and left.”
Reflecting on that encounter with the benefit of hindsight, Ogunbiyi wrote: “Whether it’s destiny of some psychic intuition, Kabiyesi’s predictions were uncannily prescient and actually came to pass…When I eventually returned to Ile-Ife 34 years after the encounter and two years after his demise, I returned as pro-chancellor and chairman of the institution’s Governing Council. Had he been alive, he would have looked me in the face and said: ‘But I told you, my son, what the deities said. I told you that you would not be coming back to Ife to teach.’”
The Guardian opened a new world for Ogunbiyi and many others. But one remarkable thing was the series of interviews held with world leaders anchored by Ogunbiyi. That assignment turned Ogunbiyi into a roving reporter and helped to increase the profile of The Guardian newspaper at the time. This was how it started, by Ogunbiyi’s account: “Following the advice of my friend, Mr Gbenga Ashiru (who later served as foreign minister), we approached the then foreign minister, Professor Ibrahim Gambari, to assist us in securing some of our scheduled interviews with different leaders. The combined pressures from our contacts and the foreign ministry’s diplomatic channels paid off. Early in 1985, we conducted interviews with President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, President Kenneth Kaunda of Zambia, and President Julius Nyerere of Tanzania. By the end of the year, we had done more interviews with leaders like Thomas Sankara of Burkina Faso, Colonel Muammar Ghadafi of Libya, Shimon Peres of Israel and two Nigerian leaders, General Ibrahim Babangida and Chief Obafemi Awolowo.
“After that, we were inundated with requests for interviews by representatives of foreign governments resident in Nigeria. After publishing the Shimon Peres interview, representatives of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation wanted us to do a Chairman (Yasser) Arafat interview. Unfortunately, we couldn’t find a date and time convenient for both parties. We cancelled the Fidel Castro interview because it fell on the same day as Chief Awolowo’s. By the time I left the employment of The Guardian, we had conducted four more interviews, two, at different times, with Prime Minister Rajiv Ghandi of India, one with President Ibrahim Babangida and the last with Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto (of Pakistan).”
A master storyteller, there are many revealing insights in Ogunbiyi’s memoirs, but one notable recall was how a certain Major General Muhammadu Buhari as Head of State promulgated Decree 4 (Public Officers Protection Against False Accusation) in 1984. The law empowered the federal military government at the time to close any media house deemed to be ‘acting in a manner detrimental to national interest’ and to jail journalists for inaccurate reporting, or for writing articles that ‘bring government officials into ridicule or disrepute.’ It was under this draconian law that Messrs Nduka Irabor and Tunde Thompson, then reporters with The Guardian, were tried and jailed for refusing to divulge the source of a story published by the newspaper.
Well, as I found out recently, the story, ‘Haruna to replace Hananiya as new UK Envoy’, for which these two journalists went to jail is factual and accurate. At the instance of his children, I am privileged to have written the foreword to the coming memoir of Major General Haldu Hananiya (rtd)—the man at the centre of that unfortunate drama. Hananiya, by the way, was the High Commissioner in London when the late Alhaji Umaru Dikko was abducted, the second in command to then Colonel Olusegun Obasanjo at the Engineers Corps before the civil war and the central figure in the Cement Armada scandal who faced the Justice Belgore Commission of Inquiry that declared him ‘neither innocent nor guilty’. Hananiya was also the only man to have held the position of Corps Marshall of the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC) twice and at different times. His coming memoirs, ‘All Eyes On Me’ shed light on all these issues, including why the duo of Buhari and his then deputy, the late Major General Tunde Idiagbon, were riled by the Guardian report and decided to jail Irabor and Thompson for ‘embarrassing’ them.
Back to Ogunbiyi’s sojourn at the Guardian. At the end, he and Macebuh were forced to resign (sacked, to use his own word) for “trying to sell sugar”. Two days later, he was appointed the Managing Director of Daily Times. Although Ogunbiyi admitted making up with Ibru before the Guardian publisher died and is now on friendly terms with the widow, Maiden, who superintends the newspaper, he expressed regret that Macebuh and Ibru never had the opportunity to reconcile before both died.
Overall, Ogunbiyi’s important memoir enlivens the historical canvas of its setting with human content. We get to know the key persons who directed national affairs at the time, their relationships and off record views. Most importantly, Ogunbiyi provides uncommon insight into the complex interface between the media and the power structure of our nation at a critical defining period. These were the days of the Babangida military presidency and the endless transition to civil rule programme, the puzzling death of Dele Giwa and the reign of Abiola as a social and business icon as well as political gadfly, the rise of Sani Abacha and his tyrannical regime etc.
The enduring value of Ogunbiyi’s work is perhaps its invaluable historical recollections while remaining a very personal story told with effortless ease and arresting candor. And for the Balogun of Ipara-Remo celebrating his 75th birthday, there is perhaps nothing more fitting than the poem written by his friend on the Road “that has made all the difference”, to borrow from the immortal lines of the late American poet and playwright, Robert Frost. Here is Osundare at his very best:
Step by step
We ply life’s Road
Through dust, through clay
Through the airy amplitude of the seamless sky
The winds whirl and whisper
In accents so brisk and broad
As the roadside grass sways to the rhythm
Of seasons which oblivion forgets
From the geography of Pain
To the archaeology of Pleasure
From the heart which knows
And the mind that feels
The Road walks through
Its web of wit and wonder
In the house of endless echoes, its poetry
A running fare of hint and hyperbole
Hail, then, this wayfarer
Whose feet bear the dusts of many roads
From far desert-fringes to the thirsty ocean
Polyglot who savours the glide of many tongues
Confluence of many rivers
Whose bridge prolongs the Road
Dibia at the Crossroads who doctors
The riddle of the knotty distance
Rain, drought, rain
The Road molds the mud, distills the dust
Etches your memory on the endless milestone
On its epic span. Sun and star en-lamp your path
Step after step after step
Echoing footsounds remind
The corridors or the Moon
The Road never forgets
Yayale Ahmed @ 70
One of Nigeria’s most respected bureaucrats of his generation, Alhaji Yayale Ahmed will be 70 years old tomorrow. As is usual with the former Head of the Civil Service of the Federation who also served stints as Defence Minister and Secretary to the Government of the Federation, there will be no ceremony beyond prayers at his home. Yayale was one of the few people who watched my back and constantly guided me while I served as presidential spokesman. I wish him happy birthday, long life and good health.
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